Useful Notes: Mahatma Gandhi

"Christ gave us the goal, and Gandhi the tactics."

"Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth."

The Father of India, and arguably its most famous son.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 — January 30, 1948; Mahatma is a Sanskrit title meaning "Great Soul", and was given to him by the famous Bengali writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) is synonymous with non-violent resistance and the Indian struggle for independence from the British Empire. Gandhi pioneered the idea of (peaceful) civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authorities without resorting to violence, principles that would later go on to inspire Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

The enduring image of Gandhi is of a little bald elderly Indian man with glasses, wrapped in a peasant's dhoti and leaning on a stick. Considering what he achieved, he may be a Real Life example of Rule One: "Do not act incautiously while confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men!" A strict vegetarian, Gandhi went on long fasts both as a means of self-purification and achieving his political aims.

Gandhi was born in October 1869 in the tiny coastal town of Porbandar in the Bombay Presidency (currently in the Indian State of Gujarat), the youngest child of a middle-class family. His father died when he was still attending middle school, at which point his family decided to send him to England to study law when he graduated from high school. Upon graduating he did just that, and in the course of finding a decent vegetarian restaurant he would meet a group of intellectuals which included writer Henry Salt and Madame Blavatsky. It was in London that Gandhi first read the classic Indian text the Bhagavad Gita, which had a profound and life-long influence upon him.

Having completed his studies at the University College London he moved to South Africa to practise law, where his ill-treatment and campaigning for Coloured/Asian (as opposed to Black, White, or pan-Human) rights was made famous in Ben Kingsley's 1982 film Gandhi. In one oft-cited incident he was refused first-class seating in a train despite having bought a first-class ticket. In another, he was ordered to remove his turban whilst arguing a case in court (the judge considered it a mere hat). It was after these and other such slights that Gandhi decided to conduct a civil rights campaign on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, who had been brought there - as they had and would continue to be in many places throughout the Empire, including behind the trenches in WWI - to work as menial labourers under terrible conditions and for meagre pay.

Gandhi held racist beliefs against the black population of South Africa, which was common at the time. He campaigned on the behalf of Indians to get better treatment than the native Africans, believing that they were innately superior as a people and had a much more important relationship with Britain as part of the Empire. He even raised a unit of Indian stretcher-bearers and medics to help the British in the Boer War. Over time Gandhi became rather leery about the whole idea of 'race', not least because it had been disproven as an anthropological concept, and the difficulties he faced in negotiating with the British soured his loyalty to and belief in the ideals of the Empire - which all too often fell short of money-grubbing realities - and kick-started his struggle to win independence for his native India.

Returning to India and allying himself with the newly formed Indian National Congress political party, he organised a series of strikes, civil disobedience campaigns, and boycotts aimed at the British. He remained committed to his philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (soul/truth force), going so far as to ask his followers not to raise a hand to defend themselves even when being attacked by the police. This was not as daft as it sounds, as Gandhi and Nehru more than any others - Nehru called himself 'the last Englishman to rule India' - knew the psychology and moral foundations of Britain's Empire. That is to say, many Britons liked to believe they were a force for good in the world. And even if they weren't all that good at the whole 'civilising mission' thing, they were still better than the French or the Dutch or the Belgians or - heavens forbid - the natives themselves.

In being seen being brutally repressed despite having done nothing wrong, Gandhi's non-violent protestors achieved moral victory ("This is what we're really doing over there?"), served as a Foil to violent revolutionary groups ("At least they're not shooting our boys, like that other lot!"), and demonstrated the potential strength of a violent movement ("Heavens forbid we should drive them to unite against us!"). Gandhi's single most famous campaign was the 1930 Salt March, where in protest against an increase in salt taxation he walked 390 kilometers to the coastal town of Dandi to make salt from the sea. Gandhi would travel to Britain several more times to negotiate with leading political figures, and was something of a media celebrity - even taking tea with King George V.

With the Imperial Japanese Army advancing into British Burma, Gandhi and Nehru used the Indian National Congress to proclaim the Quit India movement, which demanded full independence effective immediately. The two of them, and most of the INC, were promptly imprisoned and those riots and acts of sabotage which resulted - with the movement's more peaceful leaders behind bars, many fringe groups turned to violence - were brutally suppressed. Churchill did, however, recognise that India could not be held in the long-run. Ever mindful of the need to keep up appearances, he favoured a peaceable and graceful exit and conceded that India would be given independence after the war was over.

'Most of the INC' with the exception of its Muslim contingent, that is, whom Muhammad Ali Jinnah had persuaded to support the war effort. Jinnah's vision of an independent Indian Muslim State was taken (increasingly) seriously as the conflict dragged on and his Indian Muslim League's contributions to the war effort stacked up, Gandhi's vision of a united India increasingly ignored in favour of a two-state solution to Indian independence. Thus the tragedy of 1947, which saw the rather messy creation of India and Pakistan as separate states a full year earlier than planned; the British got their dignified exit, but at the expense of a few million people who were displaced and impoverished by the war and mass exodus that soon followed. Though in retrospect the two-state solution was a bad idea, Britain had also had to speed the de-colonisation process up as they were quite literally teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and unable to shoulder the costs of administering the colony any more - a direct result of the US' unwillingness to loan them any more money In Support Of Imperialism (in the bad sense) after the War's end. It goes without saying that the East India Company, and its successor The Rajnote , had done much to play India's Muslim (e.g. the Mughal Empire and its secessionist kingdoms) and Hindu (e.g. the Maharatta Confederacy) realms - and people - against each other for the better part of a century, passing laws to 'preserve' their differences and the caste system (to counter the melding of culture and castes/classes in the century or two of strife and social mobility that marked the disintegration of the Mughal Empire) to ensure the region would be easier to govern.

Britain had initially wanted to delay independence until '49 so as to put the infrastructure in place to move the minority populations of soon-to-be-Muslim/Hindu areas safely and separately, but a combination of aforementioned Indian unrest and American intransigence over money meant that Britain could no longer afford to do this - taxes had already been raised to unpopular levels so as to establish the NHS and a proper welfare state (as per the Labour Party's promises to implement the recommendations of the Beveridge Report). What's more, the government was basically unable to print money in amounts worth a damn if it wanted to make up the budget shortfall - doing so would effectively mean (further) devaluing British overseas investments, which were ridiculously extensive after a century of massive overseas investment (to the tune of a third of the UK's collective savings for nearly a century). The new Indian Muslim state was called 'Pak(i)stan', an acronym of its constituent provinces of the Punjab, Afghan Province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baleuchistan (but not Bangladesh, aka 'East Pakistan'). The Partition occurred on the 15 August 1947. Eventually, with Indian military support, Bangladesh gained its own independence from Pakistan after a rather bloody revolution.

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, an extremist who held Gandhi responsible for certain concessions made by India to Pakistan. Today Gandhi is famous worldwide as a symbol of non-violence, and revered in India.

Point of clarification: Mahatma Gandhi is not related to Indra Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, or any of the other Gandhis (of the so called "Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty") that you hear about in Modern Indian politics. Indra is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she took the last name from her husband Feroze Gandhy (later anglicized to Gandhi), who is not related to Mahatma.

Tropes associated with Gandhi

  • Actual Pacifist
  • Against My Religion: Violence, obviously, as well as sex and eating meat, to him.
  • Authors Of Quote
  • Badass Grandpa
  • Badass Pacifist
  • Bald of Awesome
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: A lot of quotes have been attributed to him, some reliable and some not.
  • Beware the Nice Ones
  • Calling the Old Man Out: His first son converted to Islam and criticised him very harshly later on in his life.
  • Celibate Hero: Another of Gandhi's principles was brahmacharya, achieving spirituality through celibacy. Gandhi would never forget that he was having sex with his wife at the exact moment his father died, which caused him horrible guilt. At the age of 36 he became celibate while still married, and would remain so for the rest of his life.
  • Church Militant: A rare positive version; his chief inspiration was not nationalism but religion.
    • Gandhi was highly syncretized and had no real doctrine other than self-discipline and vegetarianism, and mixing traditional rural conservative ideas for nationalist, democratic ones. He had earnest religious principles but not one that could lend itself to church or missionary ways of thinking. He was also opposed to all kinds of dogma and religious intolerance.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: The British did not take him terribly seriously early in his campaign, which turned out to be a big mistake.
    • They weren't wrong or mistaken since to them Gandhi seemed harmless in that he was neither a radical communist or extremist, nor was he a goody two-shoes Oxford educated Indian liberal that comprised the Congress. Both the radical left and moderate base in India and the English were taken aback by Gandhi's sudden rise.
  • Crusading Lawyer: He used to practice law. Though he was mostly a conventional lawyer and hardly took on big cases. He became radicalized as an activist.
  • Death by Irony: A peaceful and devout Hindu... violently murdered by a Hindu extremist.
  • Determinator: His struggle for Indian independence took literally decades, during which he was beaten and imprisoned countless times.
  • Disappeared Dad: Gandhi rarely had time for his four sons, even neglecting their formal education. His estranged first son Harilal became a vagrant and died an alcoholic.
  • A God Am I: At some point, Gandhi became convinced that he had some sort of reality warping mystical powers of sorts. Many people believed that as well, regarding him as some sort of demigod.
  • Good Old Ways: His love of rural India and distrust of industrialization.
    • The major irony and what his critics consider as hypocritical is the fact that Gandhi was backed by India's emerging business leaders - Ganshyamdas Birla and Bajaj - who definitely wanted to industrialize India. He also pacified strikes in Ahmedabad's jute mills on behalf of some of his backers by coaxing the workers to call of the strike. Gandhi's famously frugal standard of living still mounted something in bills not to mention his constant travel and entourage which despite their frugality cost a lot. All these bills were covered by them. The famous Indian poet, Sarojini Naidu famously joked about how much it cost for Gandhi to be poor.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: His hunger fasts, as always, a peaceful version of the trope.
    • This was invoked again when he learned of the Holocaust. Gandhi thought that the Jews still should have used non-violent resistance even though they were being deliberately murdered, although he did allow that commitment to his philosophy required a supreme act of courage and self-sacrifice that not everyone possessed.
    • He sort-of deconstructed this Trope, using fasting and his very extant influence as a way of blackmailing Indian politicians into agreeing with him. Then Reconstructed, when you consider the fact what he wanted included, for instance, saved seats in parliament for the “untouchables”.
    • Actually the above was fully deconstructed as the Dalits community were getting a much better deal by breaking off. Gandhi himself even signed an agreement to honour the decision made by the British on the manner. When the British gave the Dalits their freedom Gandhi began a hunger fast to the death with his followers threatening violence against the Dalit community should he die. To this day Dalit people are still reported to be mistreated in India. Had Gandhi honoured his word millions of people would be better off.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: People tend to forget that he mistreated his own family pretty badly, or that he was very harshly criticised throughout his life for his extremely peculiar methods. He also expressed contempt for black people and low-caste Indians.
  • How Much More Can He Take: The press reported daily on his legendary fasts, including some in which he came close to death.
  • Martial Pacifist: While he himself wasn't one, he acknowledged that though nonviolence may be the morally superior, violence is still far more preferable to cowardice if it ever comes to that choice. In fact, he describes his methods as the path to the least violence.
  • Moral Event Horizon: Doesn't believe in them. When asked by reporters what he would do to Hitler if they met, he replied that no one had considered the possibility that Hitler could be redeemed. To be fair it was in the middle of WWII and knowledge of Hitler's atrocities were unknown at the time. But it shows how committed Gandhi was to compassion and also because he was aware that the English media wanted to catch him on some inconsistency or other, so he decided to go full fanatic rather than be wishy-washy.
  • Principles Zealot: Absolutely refused to compromise on issues like nonviolence, Indian sovereignty, etc. However Gandhi's position on non-violence was quite a bit more complex than critics would believe. He said that non-violence has to come from a position of strength and not cowardice or fear of using violence. As he himself said it:
    "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor. But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment. Forgiveness adorns a soldier. But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. But I do not believe India to be helpless. I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. We do want to drive out the beast in the man, but we do not want on that account to emasculate him ... The world is not entirely governed by logic. Life itself involves some kind of violence and we have to choose the path of least violence."
  • Reasonable Authority Figure
  • The Rival:
    • Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and first Pakistani head of state, was arguably this. Although they had allied together against the British, Jinnah would bitterly oppose Gandhi's dream of a united Indian subcontinent. Winston Churchill may also qualify, fighting with everything that he had to keep the Raj in the Empire in order to keep the Empire together.
    • B. R. Ambedkar, an influential activist from an "untouchable" caste, who managed to beat the odds and become a Doctor of Law, amongst other things (and among those other things we include "primary author of the current Constitution of India"). He really did not like Gandhi all that much. Despite the fact that Gandhi came from a middle caste on an absolute scale, he was still far higher up the traditional ladder from the "untouchables", and consequently Ambedkar felt he patronised the "untouchables". Both wished for an end to untouchability, but Gandhi saw the solution as social education and stressed the importance of rural life; Ambedkar wanted the Caste system criminalised in law and thought rural India was the most bigoted against "untouchables" of the lot. Ambedkar was also a strong advocate of industrialization and was suspicious of most religionsnote  on principle (seeing them as a way for dominant groups to control those weaker than them), although he reserved his strongest vitriol for Hinduism, which he saw as the origin of the caste system that kept the "untouchables" down in the first place. Gandhi did want to abolish the Caste system but felt that its rigid contemporary form was essentially a British invention.
    • And then there is Subhas Chandra Bose, a radical opposed to peaceful protest. To undermine the British he was ready to ally with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy, leading to accusations that he was a Fascist. He actually preferred the Soviets, but he wasn't able to get their support (as they were fighting the Germans alongside the British—supporting a rebellion against Britain in her most important colony would endanger the alliance). He was briefly President of the India National Congress, wherein he clashed with Gandhi regularly, and soon after his terms were up World War II broke out. With assistance from Japan he formed a short lived rebel force called the India National Army and launched doomed assaults against the British. He favoured a degree of authoritarianism and was obviously a militarist, though he fell a bit short of Fascism or Leninism. Ironically, two of the brigades raised by the Indian National Army were named after Gandhi and Nehru.
  • Science Is Bad: Gandhi was wary of the changes the Industrial Revolution made to Indian society, viewing them as sources of corruption and pollution. He advocated a return to the simple rural life, most famously hand-spinning thread on his charkra even while talking to reporters. This was something which Nehru, a very pro-Science and pro-Industrialist man disagreed with him on completely.
  • Shrinking Violet: Gandhi started out like this. In his first case as a lawyer, he entered the court, was too afraid to say anything, and then fled in terror. (He later refunded his client's fees.) Over time, he grew out of it, although he remained rather reserved.
  • Smart People Wear Glasses
  • Stupid Good: Believed that non-violent resistance was the only appropriate response to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
  • Velvet Revolution: Type 3, and the original. Although there was still a lot of violence, particularly the British massacre of civilians in Amritsar and Hindu-Muslim violence when Pakistan was being partitioned, Gandhi and his followers never resorted to violence themselves in their quest for independence.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Common criticisms of him nowadays have to do with his earlier views on race in South Africa, as well as his difficult relationship with his sons - a quote of him disowning one of his sons, very harshlynote , is passed about. His quote about the Jews is often brought up out of context, too.
    • The man denied medicine to his wife as she was dying of pneumonia because he didn't believe in germ theory.
    • His views that women who get raped aren't "pure" enough.

Gandhi in fiction

  • Clone High: An animated show that depicted a high school full of the clones of famous individuals, with the Clone Gandhi rebelling against his predecessor by being hyperactive and irreverent. It caused an uproar in India, to the point where members of the Indian parliament were criticizing it.
  • Gandhi: The sprawling 1982 biopic that earned Sir Ben Kingsley an Oscar.
  • UHF parodies the Actionized Sequel trope by showing a trailer for Gandhi 2. The humorously clueless depiction of Gandhi turns him into a jet-setting vigilante who beats up hoodlums, drives a Ferrari, orders steak at restaurants, and, you know, isn't dead.
  • "The Last Article" is a short story by Harry Turtledove depicting the interactions between Gandhi and the new German governor of India in an Alternate History in which the Nazis won World War II.
  • In every installment of the Civilization series Gandhi serves as India's leader - indeed, it was only in Civ IV that Asoka was added as a less contemporary option. In the first game, a programming oversight caused Gandhi to become the most warlike leader in the late game, and his out-of-character obsession with nuclear weapons became a fandom in-joke and a series tradition.
  • The short subject Gandhi At The Bat is a mockumentary about Gandhi secretly visiting Yankee Stadium in 1933 and pinch hitting for the New York Yankees.
  • Was in Celebrity Deathmatch against Genghis Khan. Due to a malfunction in the time machine, the two switched personalities, causing Gandhi to beat Genghis Khan into a pulp before rampaging through the building.
  • Gandhi features in Epic Rap Battles of History, facing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha is based on the life of Gandhi (with lyrics taken from the Bhagavad Gita).
  • Gandhi appears as a stand-up comic in a Family Guy cutaway. He isn't successful.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Mountain of Madness", as Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns fall victim to Cabin Fever and are about to fight, Homer asks Burns "You and What Army?", prompting him to imagine a snowman army behind Burns. Homer counters with "I have powers... uh, political powers!", imagining political figures including Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt behind him.

Alternative Title(s):

Mohandas Gandhi